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Qatar Digital Library Preserves The Music Of A Vanishing Past

Ṣawt musicians during a performance in Kuwait in May 2014.
Rolf Killius
Qatar Digital Library
Ṣawt musicians during a performance in Kuwait in May 2014.

The songs our grandparents sang can tell us who we are. Here in the U.S., the Lomax family became famous in the 1930s, when they recorded America's folk music.

In other countries that are changing fast, people are also trying to hold onto their heritage. The tiny, super-rich state of Qatar takes pride in its modernity, with its gleaming skyscrapers and lucrative gas fields. But it is also investing in a huge history project.

The Qatar Digital Library began as a brainchild of the former first lady, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned, and was put together with Richard Gibby from the British Library.

"Her highness Sheikha Mozah and the Qatar Foundation are very keen to put their local people in touch with their own past," Gibby says.

Last year, the library made public a digitized archive of Arab scholarship, maps and artworks, particularly from Gulf countries like Kuwait, Oman and Iraq.

The library has also compiled a music archive. Staff members collected early recordings on disks made from shellac, like this one of Kuwaiti musician Abdullah Fadhala in the 1950s.

Some of the subject matter is, perhaps, surprising these days. This singer enthusiastically praises his "whisky" — some places in the Gulf used to be less strict with the Islamic ban on alcohol than they are now; these recordings give a glimpse of how things have changed.

This is a group of Iraqi musicians playing in Cairo in 1932:

The singer, Muhammad al-Qubanshi, was Muslim, but band members were nearly all Jewish. In the early 1920s, almost half of Baghdadis were Jewish, including famous musicians like Sett Salima Murad, recorded in 1933.

By the 1950s, after the creation of Israel, most Jews had been pushed out of Iraq, and the musical traditions largely died out. Curators say this archive is preserving music that could otherwise be lost, and they're also preserving disappearing cultures. A century ago, many people in countries like Qatar and Kuwait were itinerant Bedouin or seafarers.

The above piece is from the late 1920s, a Kuwaiti musician called Mahmoud al-Kouéti. The genre is Sawt, which means voice, and it's thought to be a mix of traditional sea and desert music, combined with a new style which was percolating from Egypt.

For some people from the Gulf, the archive is a welcome reminder of a vanishing past. Author Sophia al-Maria, who grew up in Qatar's capital city of Doha, says in the early 2000s there was one shop in Doha where you could get old shellac records.

"It was like three old men sitting in a shop, with several different kinds of old phonograph[s]," she recalls. "And I had this incredible anxiety that this stuff was just all going to be lost."

Maria is half American; her family on her father's side — the Qatari side — was Bedouin. But she says within two generations in the city, they've lost many of the old skills, like how to weave tents. She also says they've become much more conservative — and keeping an eye on the past can remind people that that's a recent development.

"I have a book, called Arabian Time Machine, from like 1971," she says. "And women are photographed in that book with [hair styled in] beehives, a woman walking through the souk in a miniskirt."

Maria isn't sure many young Qataris will pay attention to the archive — they're more interested in the World Cup football tournament set to be held there in 2022. But she likes that it's there. It's like a "sleeper cell of knowledge," she says. "Someday, people will find it and it will matter."

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Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.